In a solemn ceremony, President Trump and congressional leaders paid tribute to the Rev. Billy Graham Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, hailing him as a humble, homegrown preacher who connected with millions worldwide.
“America’s pastor,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
As the body of the evangelical leader lay in honor in the Rotunda, Trump and congressional leaders delivered brief speeches praising Graham, and Congress’s chaplains offered prayers.
In a rare moment of public self-reflection, Trump recalled for the crowd the time that his father took him to see Graham preach at Yankee Stadium in New York in 1957.
“My father said to me, ‘Come on, son’ — and, by the way, he said, ‘Come on, mom. Let’s go see Billy Graham at Yankee Stadium.’ And it was something very special,” he said. “But Americans came in droves to hear that great young preacher. Fred Trump was a big fan. Fred Trump was my father.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “The man we recognize today may well have shared the Gospel with more people, face-to-face, than anyone else in history.”
“Billy Graham lifted up our nation, not because he occupied the spotlight so masterfully — but because he knew he wasn’t the one who belonged in it,” McConnell added. “He was just a happy instrument in the hands of his creator.”
Ryan said Graham was “a man made great, not by who he was, but by who he served, with all of his heart and all of his soul and all of his mind.”
With the late minister’s family in attendance, Trump, the first lady, Vice President Pence and lawmakers stood silently as Graham’s casket was placed on a raised box called a catafalque that was constructed by the Capitol’s official architect. It is made of wood and draped in a black cloth.
Most of Trump’s Cabinet attended the ceremony as did many — but not all — members of the House of Representatives and Senate. The House recessed Tuesday evening in tribute to Graham, meaning many lawmakers probably left Washington instead of staying for the event.
Dozens of ambassadors attended as did Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) and his wife, Lynda Bird Johnson, whose father, former president Lyndon B. Johnson, lay in honor in January 1973.
A few other dignitaries joined the hundreds who continued pouring through the Rotunda on Wednesday. The Rev. Franklin Graham, the minister’s eldest son, escorted journalist Greta Van Susteren and her husband, John Coale, as well as business executive Steve Case. When former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) came to pay his respects, he crossed paths with Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his wife.
“One of my greatest pleasures was voting for your confirmation,” Lott told Alito, who thanked the senator for doing so.
Graham, the 99-year-old world-renowned evangelical leader, died Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, N.C. His body was to remain in place overnight and leave the Capitol on Thursday morning. He will be buried Friday in a private family service in Charlotte, which Trump is scheduled to attend.
Among those waiting to pay respects Wednesday at the Capitol was Vince Wilson, 72, who came from Richmond.
“This guy is a legend,” Wilson said, as he leaned on one of the metal barriers filling two lanes of First Street NE outside the Capitol.
Wilson’s friend, Billy Mullins, called Graham “impartial. No division in him whatsoever. Not like what we see in our country today. I’ve often wondered where will be the next Billy Graham now?”
Wilson once attended one of Graham’s “crusades” in Richmond, where he saw how the preacher united a stadium. “It was quite a revival. You see people being saved and coming to Christ. This guy touched so many millions of lives during his lifetime. It’s incredible.”
Also in line was Sue Brinner, who was in college in 1975 when a guy she liked invited her to see a movie produced by Graham’s ministry.
It changed her life.
“I could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Somehow I’d missed that, growing up in a traditional Protestant church,” Brinner said. “I always saw God as a scary, vengeful, angry person. That you could actually have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, I was blown away. Other people were getting blown away by drugs. I found faith.”
While waiting in line, Brinner chatted with Fleweini Ghebre, who said her story resembled Brinner’s even though she was born in Eritrea.
Ghebre said she also saw God as a frightening arbiter of judgment, until she left the Coptic Orthodox Church of her childhood for an evangelical congregation.
“It’s a reminder for me,” she said — and Brinner finished her sentence: “that we live in a country where they would put an evangelist who loved the Lord, that they would honor him in the United States Capitol.”
She turned to look. “I love this country,” Brinner said.
As his body was driven Saturday from Asheville, N.C., to Charlotte, the motorcade was greeted by thousands of admirers, including many waving Bibles and U.S. flags. On Monday and Tuesday at his family library, thousands — including former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — came to pay respects.
The honor in the Rotunda is exceedingly rare. The tradition began with Kentucky Sen. Henry Clay in 1852 and was held most recently for the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) in 2012.
The remains of unknown soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War have been granted the honor, as have 10 U.S. presidents — from Abraham Lincoln to Gerald R. Ford. In 1998, Congress granted use of the Rotunda for two Capitol Police officers killed while on duty.
Graham is just the fourth private citizen — after Pierre Charles L’Enfant, planner of the District of Columbia; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover; and civil rights activist Rosa Parks — to “lie in honor.” He is the first member of the clergy to receive the tribute.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.